I was eating my words. “If you’re not having fun, you’re going too hard!” Really? How could 9 minute pace be too hard? Yet there I was, feet giving way with every foot plant, to the loose sand below me, heart rate around 155 – a normally sustainable effort over 100k – and I was most decidedly not having fun. I was efforting too much, but felt like I couldn’t go slower. How arrogant of me.
Last year I ran the 50k version of this race, the inaugural event, had gone out way too hard, and struggled for the last 45k, coming in just under 5 hours. This year, with the new distance and last year’s memories, I planned on being super conservative. I was also healthier and more fit than last year, so felt comfortable with a goal of sub 11:00, and a secret goal of closer to 10. I had beverages labeled for the race organizers to place at various aid stations – chocolate milk, pepsi, Fanta, with some gels. We would be otherwise offered bottled water, bananas, and a few packaged snacks.
This was my 3rd foray into desert running. The Gobi 50k last year, the Marathon des Sables last April, and now this, the Gobi 100k. It took this long for me to conclude that I don’t like running in sand. I couldn’t find a comfortable rhythm or any place to find with a stable surface. I also felt strangely anxious running with the 20k entrants – not knowing who my competitors were was messing with me. I knew a number of the 100k women were in front of me, but how many and how far was the unknown. And it was silly of me to worry about it in the first 5 miles of a 62 mile run. And so I trudged on, focusing on footing.
For questioning minds (“why did you sign up for such a thing?”) I love adventures, I love travel, and I love being invited to races. I love running and racing. When I came to the city of Jiuquan last year, met the race organizers, made friends with them and the numerous runners from around the world, I was taken. China is a vast and interesting country, rich in history, culture and interesting and tasty food. My sister-in-law is Chinese, and I was fortunate to have her and my brother visiting Beijing at the same time I was arriving, so I was able to visit some of the amazing historical sites there the days before flying to the edge of Mongolia for the 100k.
Jiuquan has a modern feel – many shops, modern cars, lots of motor scooters – and an old, traditional feel as well, with groups of men sitting around playing chess, cards, and mah jong, groups of women meeting for dancing, tai chi, knitting, and cards. Stray dogs wandering around much like feral cats in the US. Given the city’s distance from more popular cities, we Americans, Europeans, and Australians, were given long, blank stares. Even with the giant billboard signs announcing the “Changan Ford Gobi 100k Trail Race” it was apparent that most of the citizens had no clue as to why we were there. The race itself was several kilometers from the city, with no clear access for spectators. Some of the 100k runners did have crew, but aside from the numerous generous, helpful volunteers, there were no spectators to my knowledge.
Our race host, Tao, made it possible for any of us to get out to the Great Wall – so I went with our Aussie friends, a few Europeans, and Zach Bitter. Our first encounter was very commercial, and interesting, but what really got us was when our cab drivers were supposedly taking us back to the hotel, started driving down some sketchy gravel roads, turning around and getting on another sketchy gravel road, to finally deliver us to an amazing section of The Wall – we were thrilled!!
Back to the race – Now trudging along to the 20k mark, I felt somehow relieved when at last there were just 100k runners on the course. There was a slight tailwind, but looking up, the trail markings stretched out as far as I could see, dotted with a few runners. So, I put my head down, worked my way forward, up and over the small but grinding dunes.
Temperatures were starting to rise, but my training in the California heat kept me somewhat immune. The sandy dune filled terrain kept me very engaged, but I would have liked a change in scenery and footing. Aid station after aid station, chocolate milk, water, Fanta, water, Pepsi, water, sand sand sand. I was starting to douse with 2-3 bottles of water, drinking one. With the language barrier, I had no idea what place I was in. About 35k in I caught Aussie friend Gary, who thought I was in about 11th. I was somewhat discouraged, and feeling slow, but he encouraged me, said I looked strong. Two more aid stations, and I caught the number 1 seed (incidentally I was the number 2 seed, based on 100k road times, but the sand factor was not in my favor). I encouraged her to follow me, and she rallied for a bit, then started walking again. Finally, reaching the 50k mark, strategically located away from the start/finish (so tempting to quit!), Walter, the Brit’s team manager, and my roommate Edit from Hungary, told me there were 6 ladies in front of me. Only 6? That buoyed my spirits. I downed a nice, lukewarm Pepsi, commercial style, and with new resolve set out to keep my position.
The next bit of terrain hooked us back into the original loop, and the tiny, loose dunes were taxing. I wished I could walk, but really didn’t feel like I had to. I had slowed (!) but could keep on the “Barbie Jog”. Back on the main loop, I saw two runners a few hundred yards ahead. Humans! I found some inspiration to try a little harder, and after about 10 minutes of focus, I passed a female and male runner. So, now I believed I was in 5th, much better than I had expected.
Another turn and big long stretch of more sand. Occasionally I turned around to see if anyone was there. Nope. Until, there was. My stomach was giving me a bit of grief, finally sending me off the main course. When I came back, a smiling Japanese woman caught and passed me, putting me back in 5th. She was very gracious, and I kept in tow for awhile, before she slipped away. With the dunes and grasses, I lost complete sight of her, but there was no one behind.
Why, oh why, was I so miserable at sand running? I had trained on what sand I could find above Folsom Lake, but it didn’t really seem to help. I thought, well, maybe I should try to run more up on my toes, so that my feet would have less surface area on the sand, perhaps eliminating some of the slippage. So, I went up on my toes, and at about 70k in, my calves started to make little twitches, until BOOM! Full on cramping. Yikes! I have only experienced cramping in races 2 or 3 times, but never bilateral. Knowing that salt has been excused as a reason for cramping, I decided I didn’t care. I pulled out some salt tablets provided by the race, and swallowed a few. Whether it was the break from running, or something in the tabs, or not trying to run on my toes anymore, my legs relaxed enough to let me start to slowly jogging, then back to “race pace” – not much faster.
Again, so spread out from other runners, I felt no real motivation to go harder, and I didn’t need to walk, nor did I want to – I wanted to get off this sand! My stomach was oddly queasy, so at the next aid station – 80k or so, I grabbed a few saltines, washed them down with water, and miraculously, it settled.
I gained and passed a male runner, from Mongolia, and he graciously acknowledged me. With the vastness of the sand, it isn’t like he had to “let” me pass. From the looks of it, few runners were sticking to running between the trail markers, and what was the point? It was harder to go around, adding distance, looking for that allusive hard surface, that just didn’t exist.
Finally, I reached the 95k mark. Feeling secure in my 5th place, I decided to take a glance back. That’s when I saw a bright orange jersey, and thought “Ella!” It was one of my new Aussie friends, 28 year old Ella, professional musician, running her first 100k, loping along until she glided up beside me. “How are you going?” she asked cheerfully. “Oh, okay, pretty tired! How are you? You look great!” “Oh, I started slow and seemed to find a groove that works!” And just like that she floated away, catching the Japanese woman who had passed me.
Ahead on the rolling dunes I could see Ella and the Japanese runner, and then Pamela from Germany, last year’s champion. The skies were darkening, and a few sprinkles fell. Off to my right I saw a big wall of sand building up in the air. Yikes! Surely I had plenty of time to get to the finish before it reached me. I pushed hard, and with 1k to go, I lost sight of the previously visible finish line, as the sand engulfed me. This must be something like what happened in the dust bowl! A tremendous tail wind was nearly lifting me off my feet, and finally the lights of the finish line clock shone through the murky air. As I neared the finish, several volunteers were fighting with tarps meant for the runners to run over, blocking the finish line. Two volunteers came out to me, gave me a medal and a towel, while I whined “But I need to cross the finish line!” Finally over it, in 11:18, I was practically carried to the finishers tent by helpful young girls, to see Pamela, Ella, and Gary who had dropped with an injury. I thought I was 6th, but turns out I was 7th. I was offered a “massage”, gladly accepted, and found it was a Thai massage – lots of stretching and pulling and pushing, a lot of “whoa whoa whoa!” by me, but it was greatly appreciated.
With the sand storm in full force, the race organizers decided to call it off, and drove off in the new Fords to pick up final runners, but with some calming of the wind, and the stubbornness of the runners, many were allowed to continue on for a finish.
The evening was filled with food and laughter and sharing of stories, like most ultras. Next day Zach and I did a little more exploring of Jiuquan before taking the 2 day trek back to the US.
I have a huge amount of gratitude for Changan Ford for putting this committee together and hosting us in such a generous manner, especially to Tao, who worked very hard to keep all the athletes happy. A big thanks to Altra Running, Nathan Sports, Squirrel’s Nut Butter and Injinji, for their continued support of my running.